Spirit of St Patrick


Tonight, on behalf of the new Spirit of St Patrick initiative, I introduced the President of Ireland, Dr Michael D Higgins at the Inaugural Dinner of the Friends of St Patrick in Montalto House, County Down. Montalto House is the site of the Battle of Ballynahinch, at which my ancestor Archibald Wilson fought alongside the Hearts of Down United Irishmen, for which he was hanged at my native village of Conlig.

 Present at the Dinner were  the First Minister of Northern Ireland, the Rt Hon Peter Robinson MLA and the Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness MP,MLA.

 Ian Paisley Jnr also gave an excellent speech. That of His Excellency was as follows:

First Minister, Deputy First Minister, Speaker, Minister McGinley, Archbishop Harper, Chief Constable, Ladies and Gentlemen:

I am pleased to be here today to celebrate St. Patrick as a symbol of reconciliation and friendship on our island. I thank Dr. Timothy Campbell and the Friends of the St. Patrick’s Centre for the kind invitation. I also wish to thank Dr. Ian Adamson for his kind and learned remarks. I met Ian on the evening of my inauguration as President when he conveyed a message of personal good wishes from Lord Bannside. I was very touched by that thoughtful and generous message and, like all of us present, am delighted that Lord Bannside is now back with his family and making a good recovery. 

The theme for this evening – “Working in the spirit of St. Patrick” – inspires us to draw on the courage and idealism of Patrick to help transform the lives of the people of this island. There are many people here this evening who have already given great leadership in transforming Northern Ireland from a place of conflict and division to one of peace and partnership and I salute that noble and inspiring work.

St. Patrick is a symbol of this island recognised around the world. We are unique in having our patron celebrated in all the corners of the world, even where the Irish are numerically scarce. 17th March is the day when everyone wants to be from Ireland – and they rarely distinguish between North and South. While political leaders from both parts of this island have for some time regularly met each other at St. Patrick’s Day events in the White House and on Capitol Hill, this might be the first occasion that we have come together on this island to mark our shared Patrician heritage – that, in itself, is something to be cherished. 

St. Patrick worked amongst all the people, North and South, and this makes his life, his spiritual idealism and the legacy of interest in him of relevance to all of us who share this island. The political divisions of the past inhibited people of some traditions from fully engaging in the celebration of our patron saint. Happily, the peace we have come to enjoy in recent years has created the political and cultural space in which shared aspects of our history, that were either denied or ignored in the past, can be looked at afresh and become part of the common ground of history which unites, rather than divides, us. 

Recalling to memory those Irish men from the South who had fought in the Great War, that great consumer of life and their shared struggles with their Ulster comrades, has proven in recent years to be a very positive and healing experience – one in which the unionist and nationalist traditions are happy to engage, to mutually respect each other and find much common ground. Similarly, the growing recognition by both communities in Northern Ireland that St. Patrick does not belong to one side or another, or does not represent any narrow or exclusive version of Irishness, is a very positive development. Instead, there is increased acceptance that his life and legacy belong to all traditions on this island. 

As we know, Patrick showed a tremendous capacity for endurance and forgiveness, and a willingness to work with, and to respect those who did not share his views. Even though his mission was to promote a new form of religious idealism on the island, he was respectful of the culture and spirituality that preceded it. In his own life Patrick overcame great personal trauma and forgave those who had caused him suffering. He was torn from his family and forced into a harsh life, yet he chose to return and work for the benefit of the people of this island. Patrick was the embodiment of the old adage that it is not your friends with whom you make peace but with your enemies. Like many of the political and community leaders in Northern Ireland, Patrick made a conscious decision to make peace with his former enemies and to return to live among them; it did not come easy but he knew it was the right thing to do and he was vindicated for his vision and courage. 

Patrick is an example to us all of someone who was driven by a strong sense of mission to transform society, to encourage people to aspire for meaning in their lives and to give them hope. As I travel around Ireland, I see the spirit of this humble and self-styled ‘untaught’ man in the ordinary men and women of today who work within their own communities on a daily basis to build a society where peace can thrive, sustainable prosperity can be achieved and all citizens, irrespective of their socio-economic means, can actively participate. These people who selflessly give up their own time, or who work in difficult circumstances, towards a lasting peace, a sustainable and just economy and a shared society represent the spirit of Patrick at work today. 

On occasions, that spirit of St. Patrick calls us to heroic work. It suggests a supporting symbolism. On others, it encourages us to take important steps of outreach and generosity to the other community – like the First Minister being present for the McKenna Cup Final in Armagh and the Deputy First Minister’s recent visit to Windsor Park. These symbolic gestures are very important milestones on the journey to peace and reconciliation. And if we need any reminding of the power of such generous gestures, we can recall the massive impact of a bowing of the head and five words in Irish during Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s visit last May. The fact that on that important occasion too we were able to show the Queen the original lexicon used by Elizabeth I to prepare her for meeting the Gaelic Chiefs of Ulster shows how heritage can come to assist us in our present and future. 

Together we face many challenges in these days of economic uncertainty. If ever a Patrician spirit for courage and resilience in adversity was needed, it is now. As a small island we must work together to develop a strong economy, North and South, which benefits all members of society. It is St. Patrick’s own chosen capital city, Armagh, that is at the heart of all-island cooperation with the North/South Ministerial Council doing very effective work bringing both administrations together to develop shared services and economic opportunities.

The current economic crisis is severely impacting on both parts of the island. The figure of a half a million people unemployed on the island is a very sobering statistic. Our young people, many of whom face the unpalatable prospects of unemployment or emigration, are perhaps experiencing the current recession most severely. I know both administrations are working very hard to put in place policies and programmes that will address these challenges and restore confidence. 

As we move forward towards a better economic future, we must make every effort to ensure that no one gets left behind. As the proverb says ‘Bí go maith leis an ngarlach agus tiocfaidh sé amárach – be good to the child and he will follow you tomorrow. The threat from those few who wish to disrupt our peace remains high, and marginalised and disaffected young people without a purpose in their lives can be attracted by the false allure of a narrative of violence. 

Patrick’s rejection of the anger he felt against his captors, is an example of how we can all move past the hurt and pain of the past and find a new path in life. In dealing with the ethical challenge of memory, a policy of amnesia rarely works. However, without denying the hurts inflicted and endured, we should strive to forge an amnesty for each other. The older generation have a right to tell their stories to the young, for a forced amnesia on that which was a traumatic violence would constitute a new violence, but the emphasis should be on the future journey – towards mutual respect, partnership, reconciliation and a shared society where violence has no part to play. The healing capacity of that journey is already being experienced, and for that we are all grateful. 

The coming years will find us commemorating many significant events in the history of the island of Ireland. We must find a way to include all traditions in remembering our shared history as these events shaped the future for all the people of the island. My hope is that, in coming together and finding a way to make such commemorations inclusive of all traditions, we can create an understanding amongst communities which will make the old absolutist confrontations of culture and politics a thing of the past. I look forward to a time in the near future when St Patrick’s Day is a time of celebration for all the people on all parts of this island. A day of ‘siamsa’ – entertainment and fun – for young and old, regardless of their political tradition. 

I warmly commend those who had the inspiration and took the initiative to convene us all together in the generous and healing spirit of St. Patrick and I wish you all a most joyous and peaceful St. Patrick’s Day – guím gach rath oraibh don Fhéile agus chuile beannacht ar an ocáid a mbeidh ar siúl agaibh. Go raibh maith agaibh go léir.

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